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What we learned from the Spurs’ landslide loss to the Clippers

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The cycle of rise and decline has a way of getting bumpy sometimes.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

Wednesday night the San Antonio Spurs were shellacked to an extent that bypasses humiliation. It was the sort of defeat that you can sense coming early but can’t be completely certain of, so you invariably begin to sort through topics to zone out to, in the event that the game gets ugly.

When I was younger, I would play out favorable trade scenarios in my head; the kind that would have shifted the balance of the league in favor of my team for the next decade or so. These were the sorts of daydreams that precluded the modern era of the Superteam, when ring-hunting superstars banded together once or twice a decade or so, rather than every two to three years.

I’d be lying if I denied that I’d lusted over the idea of adding Kevin Garnett or Dirk Nowitzki to the frontcourt, ushering in a production of Twin Towers: Part Deux. And I’m only mildly ashamed of fantasizing about the effect that Steve Nash or Jason Kidd might have had running the point.

But dreams of vast and serendipitous improvements are the dreams of youth. And if the league developments of the last decade hadn’t soured me a bit on that kind of fantasy, I imagine that impending middle-age would have anyway.

It seems to me that one of the hallmarks of adulthood involves the acceptance of certain personal flaws and steadily concerted efforts towards modest self-improvement. How fortunate to have reached that precipice at the exact same time that steady-yet-modest improvement has become the theme of a Spurs team slowly working its way towards the fringes of contention.

This was a bad game, make no mistake. Losing to the historical lesser of the two Los Angeles teams at the hands of the most controversial player/defector in Spurs franchise history smarts in a way that compares favorably (or perhaps unfavorably) to the travails and dramatics of a high school romance.

There’s something about playing the Los Angeles Clippers that’s eerily reminiscent of walking down the hallway to your locker between classes only to glimpse your former paramour locked in an embrace with another (at least in your mind) lesser being.

And you’d probably be able to let it go if not for the fact that the closer you get to your locker, the more you realize that said human is more physically compelling than you remember them being. Hell, it even looks like the relationship has improved that person’s quality of fashion and grooming in the process, rendering them all the more impressive. You still go all the way to your locker to retrieve your books, but damn it if the whole thing doesn’t just reek of criminal unfairness all the while.

That is, in a nutshell, what the game felt like. Whatever the Los Angeles Clippers once were, they are no more. Gone are the lovable losers and the hyper-athletic sideshows of previous regimes. This is a Clippers team that sports the league’s 2nd best offensive rating, 4th best net rating, 3rd best effective field goal rating, 2nd best true shooting percentage, and is number one in three-point percentage, and boy did they play like it.

The Clippers shot a staggering 55.7% on the evening, and 51.5% from three, the most outrageous demolition of San Antonio’s defense since the Utah Jazz posted almost identical shooting percentages against the Spurs back at the start of January. If a living nightmare more closely resembles the losing effort that just won’t end, this was the horror of a game that was over by the close of the third quarter and an ending about as difficult to predict as that of Zachary Edward Snyder’s recut of the previously released ‘Justice League’; more visually engaging, but inevitably tunneling its way to the same end result.

By all rights I should have been daydreaming about franchise altering additions to the team on the eve of the NBA’s trade deadline, but instead I found myself fantasizing about incremental increases in shooting percentages and improved defensive awareness and execution, filing away each positive development for later reflection and analysis.

I’m not old yet of course (by middle-aged standards), but at thirty-two I’m still young enough to remember exactly what my body felt like fifteen years ago, and I’m forced now to reckon with the changes. I’ve found that pre-exercise stretches have become a highly recommended (if not outright necessary) ritual and I’ve suddenly been struck by a passion for walking long distances. Most tellingly, I find myself fascinated by youthful potential and heavily invested in the stories of athletes who’ve extended their primes beyond a natural peak.

I suppose with age there comes a more personal understanding of the cycles of rise and decline, and also a special appreciation for the players and teams that defy those cycles longer than others. Invariably I find that the older I get, the older ‘old’ becomes, but ask any child how old thirty is and see what sort of return you get on that query. Youth expects eternities of youth.

Age, on the other hand, expects nothing but the cycle, and the San Antonio Spurs pushed themselves a decade beyond theirs. After a long trip around the moon, we’re on the dark side for now, traversing our way through the orbit. In the absence of sunlight, it’s hard to know just where we are in our journey, but some days it seems like the splendor is just a breath away.

Games like this are bound to shake that confidence of course, but that’s when I find it important to remember that the Clippers have the NBA’s most experienced, and second oldest roster. San Antonio on the other hand sits in the younger half, will likely sneak into the sixth to seventh lowest after LaMarcus Aldridge’s eventual exit, and will be sitting very near the bottom five in both categories should Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan find new homes in the offseason.

In all likelihood, the Los Angeles Clippers have reached their apex, and this San Antonio Spurs team has yet to approach theirs. This seemingly everlasting run of contention may have distorted both our understanding of the gradual nature of success (Duncan’s arrival greatly accelerated that) and the standard length of said apex, so we should be careful to keep that in mind.

I missed the wild staggering of a youthful buildup the last time around. By the time I had really begun to watch basketball, the Spurs were already contenders, and if I’m honest, I’m glad I’ll have this time to more properly appreciate contention the next time it comes around.

Still, I can’t help but wonder if I’ll have the patience to watch this cycle play itself out again after that window closes. I can’t imagine that I’ll always have so mellow a reaction to a team dropping 17 three-pointers on the Spurs. Perhaps I’ll one day transcend beyond the reaction to wins and losses and will satisfy myself with displays of good basketball, knowing that an increase in one will lead to the other.

I wonder if that’s a place that Gregg Popovich, more than twice my age, has finally reached. I wonder if one day I’ll simply turn off the television in the middle of the third quarter.

But mostly, I just wonder.

Takeaways:

  • Out of all the dreadfulness of this contest, it has to be said that DeMar DeRozan had a particularly bad night. Yes, there were some embarrassing failures in offensive distribution, but four turnovers pales in comparison to the turnstile work displayed on the defense. To be fair, the Clippers are a particularly bad matchup for DeRozan, with Kawhi Leonard, Marcus Morris, and Nicolas Batum all manning the forwards slots at one point or another, something Ty Lue took advantage of at every opportunity. I’m of the opinion that DeMar DeRozan fits well with this long, fast version of the Spurs, but its games like this that make it hard to type that out. Hopefully this is just a slump for DeMar, which would be understandable considering his recent personal loss, but it does raise the question of what length of contract the Spurs might be willing to offer to a player manning arguably the most premium position in this iteration of league play in years that will almost certainly feature a decline in already iffy defensive play, particular in the wake of LaMarcus Aldridge’s sudden cliff jump in that department. I think we may not have sufficiently appreciated how well Tim Duncan aged.
  • Devin Vassell on the other hand seemed determined to show his mettle in a game against a former defensive player of the year, flowing from point to point with a fluidity and composure that the rest of the Spurs seemed to lack. Though his deflection, block, and steals numbers don’t always show it, Vassell’s arms snake their way into lanes and drives almost of their own accord, and in spite of a lack of bulk, the lengthy forward has proven to be difficult to drive on. Vassell is already a legitimate rotation player as a rookie, and with San Antonio’s record for player development, it certainly seems possible that his ceiling might be quite a bit higher than that. (I’m thinking Khris Middleton)
  • However, another developing challenge that Vassell has in that respect, is Luka Samanic. I still feel a bit twitchy about projecting what Samanic could become long-term, but it’s becoming clear that cries of ‘bust!’ were nothing short of premature. Like fellow young-uns Vassell and Johnson, Samanic has one heck of a motor, and plays with a relentlessness on defense that might have impressed even Patrick Beverly had he been there to see him take on the eternally slippery Lou Williams. It’s no coincidence that Samanic and Vassell had two of the best +/-’s on the night for San Antonio, as they seemed to be some of the only players locked-in throughout the contest. The biggest indicator of Luka’s recent success? A large portion of Spurs twitter reacted quite negatively to him being replaced by Trey Lyles in the second-half. Say what you will, but bit-by-bit Samanic has begun to win over a divided fanbase, and in San Antonio you only do that by bringing your lunch pail to each and every outing. C’est très impressionnant!

Playing You Out – The Theme Song of the Evening:

Vienna by Billy Joel